The man who financed the American Revolution

During desperate desperate years,
merchant Robert Morris answered the call
for money and munitions
so that George Washington could win

Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington are the most famous heroes of the American Revolution, but it wouldn’t have turned out successfully without Robert Morris.

A signor of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, Morris was a Philadelphia merchant who raised money, often from his own pocket, so that George Washington could feed, clothe and pay his restless soldiers. Morris made it possible for Washington to take his troops to Yorktown, Virginia where he defeated British General Charles Cornwallis, winning the Revolutionary War.

The Continental Congress was broke, there was runaway inflation, and Morris dealt with anxious creditors. “He had made more enemies than any other single man in public life up to that time,” wrote biographer Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer. “His rugged force, his sound sense, and his inflexible determination constituted him a friend to be sought and a foe to be feared.”

Revisionist historians like E. James Ferguson have emphasized how Morris profited from the Revolutionary War. But the fact remains that he helped get absolutely crucial jobs done.

While historian William Graham Sumner acknowledged that “There is no reason to doubt that he profited largely as an individual by all his connection with the public service,” Sumner went on to say: “The public sought his services in the position of a statesman, not because he was a statesman, but because he was a merchant and banker, and they wanted the professional services of a merchant and banker. What his high-principled critics demanded was that in his public capacity he should be both public man and private man, but that in his private capacity he should abstain from any knowledge or opportunity of the public man…he was a volunteer, to whom everybody turned in a moment of crisis, and who was anything or everything for the service of the cause. He employed for the public all the knowledge or opportunities which he possessed.”

Historian John C. Miller wrote, “It went against the grain of the revolutionary patriots to look to one man for salvation: the wisdom of legislative bodies rather than the talents, however pre-eminent, of an individual was regarded by these republicans as the mainstay of the state. When that individual happened to be a war profiteer, the case against one-man rule was clinched. Nevertheless, Robert Morris seemed to be the only man with sufficient wealth and ability to save the country from the consequences of five years of uncontrolled inflation. The economic masters of the country were not the states to which Congress futilely appealed, but the merchants who had grown rich and powerful from the war; and none had grown richer or more powerful than had Robert Morris. Reluctantly, therefore, the patriots broke with their philosophy…What energy there was in the government of the United States stemmed largely from Morris; but it was French gold and his private credit as the richest American merchant of the day, rather than any confidence in the financial solvency of the Continental Congress, that enabled him to set the wheels in motion.”

John Adams reflected on Morris, his contemporary: “I think he has a masterly understanding, an open temper, and an honest heart; and if he does not always vote for what you and I would think proper, it is because he thinks that a large body of people remain who are not yet of his mind. He has vast designs in the mercantile way, and no doubt pursues mercantile ends, which are always gain; but he is an excellent member of our body.”

Morris was born on January 31, 1734 in Liverpool, the son of a nailmaker who emigrated to Oxford, Maryland which was a busy port on Chesapeake Bay and served as an agent for a Liverpool tobacco merchant. Young Robert displayed an aptitude for business and was apprenticed with merchant Charles Willing. By 1754, he was a partner. The firm grew to be one of the largest merchant firms in Philadelphia, with its own fleet of ships which sailed to Europe and the West Indies.

Morris joined the resistance against the Stamp Act (1765), an effort by Parliament to extract tax revenue from the American colonies. He supported the Non-importation Resolutions, affirming that American merchants would stop importing goods from England until the Stamp Act was repealed.

On September 18, 1775, Congress established a Secret Committee to import guns and ammunition. The first contract was placed with the Willing and Morris firm, which as historian William Graham Sumner observed, “seems to have first given them a reputation for seeking their own profit in the public necessity.”

The Pennsylvania legislature named Morris a member of the Continental Congress on November 3,1775. He was 41 and had a wife, three sons and a daughter.

Morris resisted the idea of American independence, hoping for a peaceful reconciliation with England, but he did sign the Declaration on August 2, 1776, and he soon began contributing his crucial financial expertise. On December 12th, Congress fled Philadelphia as British forces approached, leaving Morris to do what he could. He borrowed $10,000 to help strengthen defenses on the Delaware River. He recruited volunteers to accelerate construction of ships so they could sail away from the British, and he stayed in touch with John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress and with commander-in-chief George Washington.

Since the Continental Congress didn’t have much money of its own, it began issuing paper currency known as Continentals. Morris opposed paper currency since, as he reported, “I am compelled to inform Congress that the Continental currency keeps losing its credit. Many people refuse openly and avowedly to receive it.”

Morris faced mounting demands for cash. After Washington had surprised and routed the Hessians, mercenary soldiers recruited by the British and camped in Trenton, New Jersey, he appealed to Morris for funds with which to buy information about British troop movements. American soldiers were returning from Canada, and they hadn’t been paid. In these and other situations, Morris generally made secured, short-term loans to the Continental Congress.

Desperate to hold his army together, Washington promised his soldiers that if they would remain with him for an additional six weeks, each soldier would get a $10 bonus, but he told Morris he didn’t know how he would pay it. Accordingly, Morris asked a Quaker merchant to lend him $50,000. “But what is thy security, Robert, for this large sum?” the Quaker asked. Morris reportedly replied: “My word and my honor.” Then, said the Quaker “Thou shalt have it.” Washington subsequently led his soldiers to Trenton where they won an important victory against the British.

The American financial situation worsened. Since war costs far exceeded tax revenue, Congress issued millions of paper Continentals, and they rapidly lost value in terms of gold and goods. Legal tender laws were passed requiring sellers to accept the currency. Congress enacted price controls in an effort to limit the consequences of the paper money inflation, but price controls discouraged sellers from making goods available, and the result was chronic shortages. Hence, the misery of Washington’s 12,000 soldiers at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania where, during the winter of 1777, they huddled in the cold without enough food, shoes or blankets as well as forage for horses.

Amidst all of Morris’ financial dealings, there were accusations that his firm had profited unfairly. Congressional investigators, however, reported: “Your committee are of opinion that the said Robert Morris, has clearly and fully vindicated himself, and your committee are further of opinion that the said Robert Morris in the execution of the powers committed to him by the said Secret Committee, has acted with fidelity and integrity, and an honorable zeal for the happiness of his country.”

In 1779, Washington told Morris that he didn’t have enough lead for bullets. Biographer Oberholtzer reported, “The lead spouting on houses, lead pipe, and every other conceivable supply of the metal had been melted, and it was then selling at about fifty cents a pound…As it happened, one of Mr. Morris’s privateers which had just come to port carried ninety tons of that metal as ballast. He at once placed it at the disposition of the government.” Morris, Oberholtzer continued, “soon put a hundred men at work manufacturing cartridges. They were busily employed all night, and in the morning a large supply was ready to be shipped to the army.”

In 1780, Morris was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly where his top priority was reforming the currency. He successfully pushed through a repeal of legal tender laws, eliminating penalties on people who declined to accept paper money as payment for goods and services. He helped enact a tax to provide some revenue with which to redeem the currency. He helped arrange the sale of government lands for more revenue. When, in 1781, Congress named Morris Superintendent of Finance, he urged that his policies in Pennsylvania would be a good model for the American states.

By this time, finances were a mess. The paper money was used as wallpaper. “In Philadelphia,” Oberholtzer wrote, “men who wore the bills as cockades in their hats marched in a procession through the public streets accompanied by a dog which was covered with a coat of tar in which the despised pieces of paper were thickly set. [Because of the inflation] a workman, it was observed, might lose his wages while he was earning them. A merchant’s profits were wiped out in a night. The government fared no better than any private individual, and when Congress called for taxes, it was paid in its own money, a worthless load of spawn from its own printing presses which would buy nothing for a suffering army.” Soon the states stopped paying taxes altogether, and there wasn’t much Congress could do about it because all it could do was recommend particular policies; under the Articles of Confederation, a policy didn’t take effect until all 13 states approved it.

Foreign lenders seemed tapped out. The French government had loaned the Americans 3 million livres in 1778, 4 million in 1780, 10 million in 1781, and King Louis XVI gave an additional 6 million livres to the cause (which didn’t have to be paid back). American representative Benjamin Franklin wasn’t able to get any more loans from the French government. John Jay, the American representative in Madrid, couldn’t borrow more money from the Spanish government, and John Adams didn’t have any luck with the Dutch government. But Adams was able to raise money from Dutch bankers.

When Lafayette, in Virginia, informed Washington that British General Charles Cornwallis had taken his roughly 6,000-man army to the Yorktown peninsula, where he could be cornered, Congress didn’t have any money to cover the expense of taking Washington’s soldiers down there. Nor was it apparent how the soldiers would be provided with food, ammunition and other supplies during what could be a long siege. Morris arranged to get flour, corn, salt meat, rum, tobacco and hay. Morris pleaded with governors of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, the states along the route to Yorktown, to provide some supplies. He arranged for boats to carry the soldiers across waterways. And finally, soldiers needed an extra inducement to march several hundred miles to Yorktown, as Washington wrote Morris, asking for still more money: “The service they are going upon is disagreeable to the northern regiments, but I make no doubt that a douceur of a little hard money [gold and silver] would put them in a proper temper.”

On September 5th, Morris, accompanied by French-speaking Gouverneur Morris, called on French Field Marshall Rochambeau who was in Philadelphia, pitching him to loan the Americans some silver with which to pay soldiers and buy supplies. Rochambeau said he didn’t have enough silver to pay his own men. Morris pleaded that without the silver, the campaign to defeat the British might fail. As these discussions were going on, a courier arrived with a message for Morris: the fleet of French ships, commanded by Admiral Count de Grasse, had arrived in Chesapeake Bay, which would prevent Cornwallis’ soldiers from escaping by sea. Rochambeau promptly agreed to lend Morris the silver, provided that it would be repaid by October 1st.

“Strongboxes of oak were built,” noted historian Page Smith, “and from fifteen hundred to two thousand crowns were packed in each box. Groups of twenty boxes were then placed in huge chests made of oak boards, the tops were nailed down, and the chests were fixed to the axles of oxcarts with welded iron straps. One horse and four oxen pulled each of the chests. The trip turned out to be almost two months long.” This wasn’t enough to pay everything owed the soldiers, and Morris was asked for more money which he arranged to end.”

The pressure on Morris was evident in his September 20th letter to the governor of Pennsylvania: “The late movements of the army have so entirely drained me of money that I have been obliged to pledge my personal credit very deeply in a variety of instances, besides borrowing money from my friends and advancing to promote the public service every shilling of my own.” Morris raised the funds, Washington marched, and Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781.

But until there was a peace agreement, the American army would have to be maintained, and in any case soldiers couldn’t be sent home until they were paid. The states weren’t much help. New Jersey, which Congress asked to contribute $485,679 in 1782, came through with only $5,500. None of the other states contributed anything. South Carolina delegates reported: “On the general subject of supplies, we need hardly inform you that our Army is extremely clamorous, we cannot pay them – we can hardly feed them. There is no money in the Treasury…” Frustrated by the financial crisis, James Madison wrote a friend: “what can a Virginia delegate say whose constituents declare they are unwilling to make the necessary contributions, and [are] unwilling to establish funds for obtaining them elsewhere.”

The American government was loaded with some $25 million of war debts and close to bankruptcy. The French government wouldn’t extend any more credit and was concerned to have existing loans repaid. Those loans were renegotiated at a higher rate of interest.

Morris had to deal with all kinds of creditors who wanted to be paid. “The greatest part of my time,” he wrote, “has been consumed in hearing the tales of woe, which many of the public creditors relate, and which I cannot prevent in any other way than by declining personal interviews, and substituting this mode of hearing them in writing.” When about 80 armed Continental soldiers came to his office for their back pay, and he didn’t have anything to offer them, he fled to the home of a friend. He renegotiated one loan after another, since repudiation would have meant bankruptcy.

He proposed a land tax, a poll tax, an excise tax and a house tax to help generate revenue for paying debts, but the states wouldn’t agree. On January 24, 1783, facing an impossible situation, Morris told Congress he was would resign.

He returned to his shipping business. Among other things, he pioneered the China trade: his ship Empress of China was believed to have been the first U.S. ship to trade with China.

On December 30, 1786, the Pennsylvania Assembly named him as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Although he faithfully attended all the meetings, he didn’t participate much in the debates. He supported ratification of the Constitution and served a term as U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.

He used his shipping fortune to buy land throughout the Union, and by 1795 he had acquired over 6 million acres. His aim was to promote the development of farms and towns, but European wars reduced the flow of immigrants, and settlement proceeded more slowly than he had expected. The mortgages and taxes were more than he could pay. Creditors had him arrested, and he was sentenced to Philadelphia debtor’s prison from 1798 to 1801. Humiliated and broke, he died on May 7, 1806. It was a sad end for the practical man who had done so much to help America achieve independence.

See:

E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776-1790 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1961).

John C. Miller, Triumph of Freedom, 1775-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948).

Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, Robert Morris, Patriot and Financier (New York: Macmillan, 1903).

Murray N. Rothbard, The Revolutionary War, 1775-1784 (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1979).

Clarence L. Ver Steeg, Robert Morris, Revolutionary Financier: With an Analysis of his Earlier Career (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954).

William Graham Sumner, The Financier and The Finances of the American Revolution (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1891), 2 vols

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